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On Pay for Performance and Using the Right Yardstick

Pay for performance (PFP) is an incredibly hotly debated facet of education reform. I’ve never really quite understood that because, well, rewarding folks for doing great work strikes me as common sense. I mean, I get more allowance money if I do my chores well, and not so much if I “clean my room” by just moving a pile of toys from one corner to another, less visible one.

Yet as a recent Denver Post article highlights, things aren’t always as clear cut for folks who are skeptical of PFP. The article provides very brief outlines of PFP system variants in Denver, Jefferson County, and Douglas County. It also launches a number of thinly veiled assaults against the concept of pay for performance, which means that—you guessed it—Little Eddie feels compelled to say a few things.

Before we get to that, though, I find it interesting (and slightly disingenuous) that the article does not include any mention of Harrison School District’s innovative compensation model. Harrison’s system is certainly the most fully developed and interesting PFP system in the state, and perhaps one of the most intriguing in the nation. Sure, Harrison is significantly smaller than the three largest districts in the state covered by the Denver Post article, but it seems like any genuine discussion of PFP needs to include their work.

Incomplete district list aside, the main thrust of the article (though I’m sure the author would contend that this is not her argument) is that pay-for-performance systems don’t work. That’s something I hear repeated often by folks who oppose compensation reform, but is it true?

To answer the question of whether pay-for-performance systems “work,” you have to first decide what exactly pay-for-performance systems are designed to accomplish. Almost invariably, opponents of PFP will point to the fact that such systems don’t seem to impact student achievement in many cases. And sure enough, the research in this area shows mixed results. But should that really be the primary topic of conversation? Should the only goal of PFP systems be to raise academic achievement?

This little guy doesn’t think so. Pay-for-performance systems are an attempt to modernize the ancient steps-and-columns compensation system (old article for an old system), which has been in use since roughly the time dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But the point stands: Steps-and-columns compensation models are really, really old.  In fact, school districts are among the only organizations still using such steps and columns—largely because these systems are often enshrined in teachers union contracts. As far as I know, no successful private enterprise in any other field uses such a rigid pay system with no heed given to performance.

Because school district compensation systems are older than my great-grandmother, and because current compensation systems leave a great many extraordinarily talented young teachers living in near poverty, those crazy education reformers have decided that an update might be in order. New compensation systems, they say, should ensure that teachers do not have their salaries artificially held down by a rigid system that recognizes only years of service and level of education. Instead, these systems should about creating new incentives for teachers to perform better, and rewarding those who truly impact their students.

Think about it. Should a great teacher with four years of experience who consistently hits it out the park in the classroom have to wait a decade to make a decent living under a steps-and-columns system? Should two teachers with the same amount of experience and education but radically different job performance receive the same raise or bonus? Should an unmotivated teacher with 15 years of experience automatically make more than a fantastic teacher with only five years of experience? Should a teacher have to incur student loan debt to get a highly questionable degree in education (or anything else) to avoid getting stuck at a lower salary, even if he or she is already performing spectacularly?

If you answered “No” to any of those questions, you smell what I’m cooking. PFP systems are, in my mind, first and foremost about treating teachers fairly.

Done properly, it’s definitely conceivable that realigning incentives from longevity to excellence could positively impact student achievement. In fact, there is some early evidence that this is the case in Harrison (see the paper linked above). Yet measuring PFP systems solely with the yardstick of academic achievement gains ignores the more fundamental concept of fairness when it comes to paying our teachers.

That, my friends, is why I’ll continue supporting PFP systems even if they don’t automatically guarantee that every kid in a given district will become an astronaut. See you next time!